Snow slickens Western Pa. roads, causes big problems for commuters |
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No one was injured in a crash involving a school bus on Morrowfield Avenue in Squirrel Hill on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015.

Minutes before a crashed car caught fire on a snow-slickened highway Tuesday, a Pine man stopped his car, dashed into the sub-freezing weather and helped free the trapped driver.

“It was obvious it was pretty serious. I can’t just drive by this guy,” said Senior Master Sgt. Bruce Zimmerman, the operations superintendent for the 911th Airlift Wing’s Security Forces Squadron. “I kind of figured (the other driver) was still in there. If he could have gotten out, he would have been out.”

A tractor-trailer’s rear wheels pinned the crippled car at the Interstate 279-79 Wexford interchange. The weight of the truck pushed the steering wheel down far enough to trap the driver, said Zimmerman, who was on his way into work when he saw one person standing near the wreck.

He moved debris and lifted the steering wheel. He and the truck driver helped the man out of the car.

A minute later, they smelled smoke. Flames shot from under the car and soon covered it, he said.

Zimmerman doesn’t consider his actions to be heroic: “It was the right thing to do; there’s no two ways about it.”

State police Trooper Robin Mungo said the driver of the car was hurt, although she couldn’t say how severely.

Zimmerman, who took the driver to his car, said he had at least two cuts on his right leg. The man pressed napkins against them to stop the bleeding while they talked about the Steelers and other topics until an ambulance crew arrived, Zimmerman said.

The truck involved in the crash was carrying road salt, Mungo said. The crash temporarily closed the southbound interstate lanes.

The fiery wreck was one of several serious accidents that prompted PennDOT to reduce speed limits on some highways. Traffic backed up despite road-salt treatments that began at 2 a.m.

PennDOT spokeswoman Juliann Sheldon said the agency had 65 trucks on the roads. Allegheny County’s two dozen sand and plow trucks started work around the same hour.

“It is the first big snowfall,” Sheldon said. “Motorists sometimes just don’t know how to handle the first several snowfalls until they get used to driving in snow again.”

Some commuters said they tried to avoid tie-ups.

“The roads were fine, but traffic was horrible,” said Patrick Hardwig, 26, of Penn Hills, who usually takes the Parkway East to travel Downtown but rerouted when he saw other drivers exiting the jammed highway to cut through Penn Hills.

He took Frankstown Road to Penn Avenue, where he said traffic moved at “a crawl.”

Sandy Roth, 54, was stranded in traffic for more than an hour. The gridlock caused her to be late for work at Bank of New York Mellon and to miss a meeting — but she said it comes with the territory.

“This is Pittsburgh, and it’s winter,” Roth said.

For others, the snow hardly affected their morning commutes.

Mike Pappas, 48, an architect from Ben Avon, said it typically takes him 20 minutes to reach his North Shore office, but the trip lengthened to about a half-hour.

“Little slow, but it wasn’t bad,” Pappas said of the traffic.

Two to three inches of snow was expected to fall in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, and an inch or two Wednesday, said Mike Kennedy, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Daytime temperatures will be in the teens for much of the week, with wind gusts of 25 to 30 mph.

“We’re not going to see a warm-up until the weekend,” said Kennedy, and the high Saturday is forecast to be in the 20s. “It’s going to be bitterly cold all week.”

Pittsburgh International Airport’s website listed several flights canceled or delayed to Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Charlotte.

The Associated Press and staff writers Tony Raap and Kelsey Shea contributed.

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